The British New Statesman asked me to contribute to their round-up of best books of the year. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the word count, and as a result only a 1/3 of my picks made it. (See the rest of the picks, from Amit Chaudhuri, Billy Bragg, Michela Wrong, and others, here.) Such lists, by anyone but the most devoted (and fulltime) critic, are a little silly — my list of recent books that I want to read is much longer than what follows, as is the list of books new to me that I read this year and loved, books I should have read a long time ago. (Wuthering Heights! Middlemarch!) But that won’t stop me from singing the praises of the new books I found especially interesting in light of my work for The Revealer:
The books published this year that I’ve been most glad for are small, interior, and closely-observed. They’re not “ambitious,” like Denis Johnson’s giant Tree of Smoke (Picador) or John Gray’s broad Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Allen Lane) or Philip Roth’s tired Exit Ghost (Jonathan Cape). Some of them are not even great in any deep sense; Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (Harcourt), a narrative nonfiction account of life and study at Patrick Henry College — a new school created to channel fundamentalists into Washington — is merely very, very good, but that’s more than enough to make it a stand-out book in the now-crowded field of books about American fundamentalism. Rosin does what nobody else has done with the subject in recent years: follows the trivial concerns of ordinary believers to their strange and even touching conclusions. Consider this inner monologue gleaned from a young fundamentalist woman prepping herself for culture war by discarding the outer trappings of her homely faith: ‘Like all the professionally minded girls on campus, [Elisa] keeps in her head a working woman’s version of the dress code: Don’t wear your hair in waist-length braids. Don’t wear denim jumpers and ankle-length flannel dresses. Don’t wear capes, ever.’
Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury), a memoir by novelist Darcey Steinke — author of several strangely erotic depictions of violence and religion, including Jesus Saves and Milk — explores similar territory. Having re-discovered, by way of Simone Weil, a heretical version of the faith in which she was raised, Steinke is able to raise up the material traces of her early religion, a mixture of magical Christianity and mimicry of her father, a restless Lutheran minister: ‘I decided to combine what I knew about communion with beauty pageants,’ she writes of a childhood ritual. ‘Mandy and I stripped down to our underpants and wrapped carpet remnants around our chests like evening dresses. I found waterlogged bras in a plastic bag of old clothes. We walked along the stream snapping off cornflowers and stuck them into our hair…. I began, as my father often did, with practical advice: Never put your finger into an electrical socket, and make sure to punch airholes when you’re collecting fireflies.’ (My full review for Nerve.)
That’s the kind of Levitical wisdom that Hazel Hunnicut, one of the three heroines of Haven Kimmel’s novel The Used World (Free Press) might offer, and if she did it would be similarly suffused with religious heresy, in the best sense of the phrase. Kimmel is one of the smartest novelists of ideas working today, but because she writes about ordinary women in small, midwestern American towns, and because she began her career with a memoir titled A Girl Named Zippy, she’s too often overlooked by the grey eminences of the literary world, a mistake not made by fans of Zippy who also gladly wrestle with dense and lovely passages such as this, about a fundamentalist woman reflecting on her first forbidden lover: ‘She would say, Peter, there was a sinking-down comfort in my life, as if I knew I was trapped in the belly of a whale, and so I built my little fires and was content to ride the waves out…. But what if the Leviathan opened his mouth? What if the greatest darkest biggest beast in the deepest sea imaginable, my God, the land that was my God and the Mission and the fear that were the swallowing that had swallowed me; what if the very beast opened wide and there above the sky I had always thought was the sky, the hard black whale palate dotted with whale stars; what if that sky opened to the sky above the sea…?’
Lest it seem as if I’m recommending a course in fundamentalist mysticism, here are two books that will make anyone doubt the existence of God. Far superior to the overly-general atheist manifestos published recently is Russ Kick’s bizarre anthology Everything You Know About God is Wrong (Disinformation Company), and I say this not because but despite of the fact that I’ve a short chapter in it myself. Atheist champions such as Richard Dawkins are here, too, but most intriguing are essays on and excerpts from the magnificent unbelief of Irving Berlin, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, and a host of other brilliant doubters and God-defiers. Less inspiring, if more nihilistic, is Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City. This depressing portrait of American hubris in Iraq – such as that of the senior Green Zone administrators who can’t be bothered to read so weighty a tome as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Iraq — is bearable only because it’s so absurd, a collection of even more awful miniatures of the war that bring to mind the old Borscht Belt mantra: It’s funny because it’s sad, sad because it’s funny. God help us.
Other new books published by Revealer contributors:
The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited by Revealer Adam H. Becker, along with Annette Yoshiko Reed, brought out in affordable paperback by Fortress Press. Becker’s writing for The Revealer is as lively and funny as his scholarly work is deliberately dense and serious; Adam doesn’t write for the cheap seats. But this collection of essays exploring the argument that Judaism and Christianity did not “part ways” nearly so clearly as supposed by many scholars (not to mention believers) lets lay readers appreciate Adam at nearly full voltage, and the subject is one of contemporary relevance to those who want to understand how Christians and Jews appeal to antiquity in support for or opposition to current alliances.
Also newly in paperback, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making, by Elizabeth A. Castelli — another study of long ago with disturbing relevance for today, as Elizabeth makes clear in her chapter dealing with Christian concepts of martyrdom and Columbine, Colorado.
Revealer contributing editor S. Brent Plate published an edited volume, The Religion and Film Reader (with Jolyon Mitchell), published by Routledge, and a study of his own, Blasphemy: Art that Offends, with Black Dog, a book with such an exciting title that it needs no further description.
Revealer contributor Michael Lesy published Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties with W.W. Norton in February. Don’t let the title fool you — presented as popular history, Murder City is, like all of Michael’s work, from Wisconsin Death Trip to Angel’s World, as much about the medium as the message, a brilliant and subtly experimental inquiry about how to tell stories with pictures and words.
Laurel Snyder follows up an anthology, Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes (Soft Skull) with her first full-length book of poems, The Myth of the Simple Machines (No Tell).
And Scott Korb trades chapers with Peter Bebergal in a tag-team memoir titled The Faith Between Us.